A diverse yet consistent collection, mind-bending and provocative in a host of styles and milieus.

PRAYER FOR THE LIVING

A career-spanning story collection from the Booker Prize–winning Nigerian writer that navigates the blurry line between dream and reality.

Okri’s stories are so concerned with myth and folklore, and so comfortable in the style of those genres, that his best ones sometimes feel as if written on parchment or chiseled in granite. In the eerie, allegorical title story, a man searching for his loved ones in a town devastated by soldiers finds a kind of collective solidarity with the corpses he discovers: “All the faces are familiar. Death has made them all my kin.” “A Sinister Perfection” features a dollhouse that seems to have the power to make (usually bad) things happen in reality. The narrator of “Dreaming of Byzantium” finds himself in Istanbul, uncertain of how he got there or of the woman he shares his hotel bed with; his journey becomes a study in how “unreality makes reality.” Okri's stories propose a kind of existential balancing act: If we err when we place too much faith in reality, we can also too easily succumb to delusion. “The Lie,” for instance, is a fable about a king who sends his minions out to discover universal truths only to face an uncomfortable one about himself: “Your power is unreal. It is made of air. It consists of what we have conferred on you.” The stories don't always strive for timelessness: Three tales concern the African terrorist group Boko Haram. Nor is the mysticism always somber: “Alternative Realities Are True” is a dimension-warping detective story worthy of Philip K. Dick, and “Don Ki-Otah and the Ambiguity of Reading” is a Don Quixote satire whose metafictional gamesmanship evokes Borges and Achebe. Okri often plays with form, as in two stories written in a flash-fiction style he calls “stoku," a portmanteau of story and haiku. But throughout, Okri skillfully embeds abstract ideas in concrete, engaging storytelling.

A diverse yet consistent collection, mind-bending and provocative in a host of styles and milieus.

Pub Date: Feb. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-61775-863-8

Page Count: 216

Publisher: Akashic

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2020

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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